The passion of “Tess”

We’re finishing the Victorian novel class I have been taking at a college in St. Paul with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I want to offer a few notes on the novel in the hope that some readers may share their thoughts and others may take up the novel if they haven’t read it before. It is an essential novel.

Our great young teacher has structured the course with four novels that evoke the plight of women in Victorian fiction. With Tess we reach the summit (or a summit) of this plight. Tess is an extraordinarily lovable woman who experiences great suffering. The proximate cause of her greatest suffering is the application of the double standard by the good man whom she marries to her premarital encounter with the villainous Alec d’Urberville.

The novel is full of Tess’s suffering. With a hundred pages to go, I had no idea where the novel was headed. The twists and turns make perfect sense, yet they took me by surprise. Tess is an incredibly powerful character. Those last hundred pages are full of sadness. We don’t want to let Tess go. She lives on in the reader’s imagination.

Hardy gave the novel the subtitle A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. In his 1912 preface to the novel, he explains that he appended the subtitle “at the last moment, after reading the final proofs, as being the the estimate left in a candid mind of the heroine’s character–an estimate that nobody would be likely to dispute.” He added: “It was disputed more than anything else in the book.”

Hardy loved Tess and so does the reader. Late in life (and he lived a long one), Hardy fell in love with a young actress portraying Tess in a theatrical adaptation. Tess certainly lived on in his imagination.

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy writes of Farmer Oak’s sheepdog, who methodically pushes his flock of sheep over the cliff to their death: “[The dog] had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot that same day–another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up largely of compromise.”

Hardy sought to avoid “the untoward fate” of the philosopher by working under the mask of the novel. He struggled with the effect of the Victorian loss of faith in the wake of Darwin and others. Can you have “an ethical system without any dogma” or morals without theology? Tess proposes “the religion of loving-kindness and purity[.]”

The novel’s villain jeers: “O no. I’m a different sort of fellow from that! If there’s nobody to say, ‘Do this, and it will be a good thing for your after you are dead: do that, and it will be a bad thing for you,’ I can’t warm up.” He needs faith in something higher than himself, and Tess is at his mercy when he lacks it.

Much as one feels Hardy’s loss of faith, the novel is overlaid with allusions to Paradise Lost. The novel is suffused with Paradise Lost. Indeed, it is probably impossible to understand the novel without some knowledge of Paradise Lost. It is part of the fabric of the novel’s art. Professor James Heffernan makes great use of Paradise Lost in his close reading of the novel, “‘Cruel persuasion’: Seduction, temptation, and agency in Hardy’s Tess.” I recommend it to you after you have read the novel.

The mainspring of Tess is most peculiar. I don’t know what to make of it.

Tess’s father is a drunken good-for-nothing named John Durbyfield. The novel begins when he is hailed as as “Sir John” on his way home from work one day. He is informed by the studious Parson Tringham, who has been studying local genealogy, that Durbyfield descends from the noble d’Urberville family, long since died out. Durbyfield is unduly impressed by his noble lineage. Before long Durbyfield is recalling the family’s glory days with “King Norman.”

Durbyfield’s practical wife wants to make something of what she believes is the family connection to the wealthy family living under the name d’Urberville in a nearby town. She sends Tess off to visit the no-good son to see what she can make of their presumed connection. Not having been afforded an education in the eighteenth-century novels that might have taught her the peril that awaits, Tess is not quite prepared to resist her fate.

Tess was Hardy’s penultimate novel. He gave up the form after the uproar created by Jude the Obscure, devoting himself completely to poetry. He titled his 1914 book of poetry Satires of Circumstance. Hardy compresses a wrenching satire of circumstance into the beginning of this immensely powerful novel.